May 10, 2012

Like many college students and recent graduates, 22-year-old Ashleigh Atwell started her first internship this month. Also like many of them, Atwell won’t be getting paid for the work she performs.

She will work four days a week, four to five hours a day, at a newly launched website,, which seeks to offer intelligent news reporting on black communities in the U.S. and abroad.

“I just started so I’m not totally sure what I’ll be doing as a whole; I’m just learning as I go,” said the Georgia State University senior who is excited about her new job, despite no pay. She hopes to gain lots of writing and reporting experience in her internship, Atwell told Poynter in a telephone interview.

It’s not just journalism organizations that use unpaid interns. This source of free labor has been a staple in the film industry and nonprofit sector, The New York Times reported over the weekend, but the use of unpaid interns has now spread to fashion houses, book publishers, marketing companies, public relations firms, art galleries, talent agencies, and even some law offices.

Employment experts estimate that about half of 1 million internships are unpaid, according to the Times’ story. In a tough economy with a 13.2 percent unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds (for recent grads with a journalism degree, it’s 7.7 percent), unpaid internships are increasingly becoming the norm for young people like Atwell who just want to get experience that will eventually help them get good jobs.

When should you accept an unpaid internship?

The first question journalism interns should ask editors is what they will get out of the experience, said Joe Grimm, a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He runs the JobsPage website and was recruiting and development editor for the Detroit Free Press from 1990 through 2008.

Grimm has written extensively about internships for Poynter and says that while he respects people who want a career so badly that they will work for free, he doesn’t always respect the companies that want them to work for nothing. If the company isn’t putting any money in interns’ pockets, they should be giving their time and helping interns improve their craft, Grimm said in a telephone interview.

“The main thing that you want to get back is opportunity and training,” he said. “Opportunity means the chance to write, edit, take pictures or make videos; a chance to do meaningful work. Training means that you don’t just sit in your apartment and send things off to somebody who never says anything to you. That’s not training, that’s them taking your work for free and using it.”

Grimm said potential interns should find out, ahead of time, if they will get edited on everything they do and whether people will explain to them how the editing is going. Interns should ask if they will have regular conversations with a supervisor so that they will know what their ongoing responsibilities are; they should also ask if there will be feedback and an evaluation at the end of the internship so that they know how well they did and what they still need to learn.

The increase in the number of startup websites has led to an increased demand for free content, allowing site owners to sell ads against the content that they don’t pay for, Grimm said. “That’s a good plan,” he said, “but there’s something about that plan that doesn’t work too well, like for the person supplying all the free content.”

Now the courts are watching

The rise of unpaid internships has led to litigation. On Feb. 1, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Hearst Corp., which owns several magazine titles including Good Housekeeping, ELLE and Harper’s Bazaar, on behalf of interns whose unpaid labor was allegedly exploited by the company in the past six years. The suit against Hearst is just one reason why Time magazine recently wrote that it may be the beginning of the end of the unpaid internship.

When it comes to unpaid internships, editors need to be sure they can pass a six-factor test to show they’re complying with federal law:

  • Unpaid internships must mirror the classroom or vocational setting, with the intern working under close supervision of existing staff;
  • Unpaid internships must provide training and professional development that benefits the intern. In other words, editors cannot use interns to do grocery shopping or run other personal errands;
  • Interns cannot replace existing employees. This means an intern cannot be used to handle the duties of an employee on vacation or extended leave;
  • Unpaid interns must also know that there is no promise of a job after the internship is completed;
  • Both parties must agree, in advance, that the intern will work for free; and
  • In general, work produced by the unpaid intern cannot be of immediate benefit to the employer. In other words, the employer cannot publish the unpaid intern’s final copy. Federal labor law specifically exempts some weekly, semiweekly and small daily newspapers. No such exemption exists for websites.

“The fact that so many places are doing it, doesn’t make it legal,” said Lorin Schneider, a founding partner of Schneider & Rubin, a New Jersey law firm whose total practice is built on representing interns. “There is no problem with an intern doing these things, so long as they are paid minimum wage. If you want to not pay your interns, then there are certain things they can’t do.”

How to eat while working for free

Federal law is perhaps the last thing on Ashleigh Atwell’s mind. Financially strapped but hungry to pursue journalism, Atwell sought advice from more seasoned professionals by posting to the National Association of Black Journalists listserve.  All the responses stressed that Atwell make the unpaid internship her priority.

As for how to make ends meet while interning for free:

  • KPRC reporter Mary Benton suggested that interns be upfront with employers. Not being from a wealthy family, when Benton was an intern, her boss learned about her situation and offered her a paying job.
  • If the employer still can’t pay, perhaps it can assist interns by covering housing costs, offered Grimm. They may have access to university housing or they can identify staff members who are willing to share living space. The company may also be willing to cover transportation costs, he said. If at all possible, live at home with parents; that way most bills are likely covered.
  • Get a part-time job, but one that won’t interfere with the internship. Freelancer Nicki Mayo said she held retail jobs on weekends, which allowed her a flexible schedule on weekdays to work as an unpaid intern at BET News. A flexible schedule at a paid job is a must, Grimm added. He also suggested a longer internship, working 12 weeks, four days a week instead of the standard 10 weeks at five days per week.

Atwell lives at home with her parents in Atlanta, but she must still help cover school expenses, especially since colleges are increasingly becoming stingy with financial aid, she said.

Atwell has already gotten a few bylines as an intern; she’s yet to do any original reporting and acknowledges a lot of her work has appeared under the nondescript “ABS Staff.”

Before she accepted the unpaid internship with, Atwell applied for paid internships with magazines and online publishers, including Essence magazine. “I didn’t get any bites,” she said, despite having already written about fashion and music for a website. She’s also blogged for, which publishes positive stories about marriage and family.

Atwell agreed to work as an unpaid intern for for one year. This allowed her to accept a paying job as a server for an events management company that will soon have her working weekends, leaving the weekdays for the internship, she said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that although federal law exempts certain printed publications from publishing unpaid interns’ work, no such exemption exists for websites.

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Tracie Powell is the founder of The Pivot Fund. A 2021 research fellow at Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School, she holds a J.D. from…
Tracie Powell

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